Why moving Europe #BeyondCoal must be quickly followed by moving #BeyondGas too

Phil MacDonald
4 min readNov 19, 2017
Bełchatów Lignite Power Plant,Poland — Europe’s largest CO2 emitter (All images released by me under a Creative Commons Attribution; Non-Commercial; Share-alike Licence)

In June, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its Beyond 2°C Scenario (B2DS) to investigate what the energy system would look like if we’re to meet the Paris Agreement. What does “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” mean?

It means zero coal power in Europe by 2030.

No coal power in Europe, at all, in a little over a decade.

Other parts of the IEA might be notoriously conservative in their forecasts, but this projection certainly isn’t. That speed of coal power plant closures (302 operational coal plants, and 96 planned) requires an unprecedented civil society movement, and an unprecedented governmental alliance against coal.

Step into the spotlight Europe Beyond Coal — civil society coordinating across 28 countries — and Powering Past Coal — 20 governments (and growing) committed to an end date for their coal plants, both just launched.

The touchpaper for the end of coal has been lit.

But… this 175GW of coal capacity can’t be replaced with unabated gas if we’re to go well below a 2°C carbon budget. Even before taking into account new research on methane-leakage impacts, natural gas combustion just emits too much.

Indeed the IEA sees gas power in the EU reaching almost zero by 2040.

That bears repeating: on a realistic pathway to keep the planet “well below” 2°C of warming, almost every unabated gas power plant in Europe will have to close by 2040.

This calls into question EU enthusiasm for gas infrastructure megaprojects like the TAP, as well as the UK government’s ever more unpopular exuberance around fracking. Attempts in Capacity Markets across Europe to subsidise new gas plants are going to continue to fall on deaf ears, when investors know their new car will last longer than their billion euro gas plant.

The remains of Welbeck Colliery (near the planned Sherwood Forest INEOS fracking sites) now flanked by a solar PV farm

So how will the electricity gap be filled without gas power?

To get to 2°C, energy efficiency does most of the heavy lifting in the IEA scenario. And the same is true to get on a pathway towards 1.5°C — in the IEA scenario, electricity generation has to remain approximately stable between now and 2040, even as the population expands and individuals get richer.

Meanwhile a massive build out of cheap renewables replaces fossil fuels. A caveat here: it might be difficult to keep electricity use down if the switch to electric vehicles accelerates, but that could be balanced by solar and offshore wind outstripping IEA forecasts — this report was produced before the flurry of offshore wind auctions in late summer which came in cheaper than new build CCGT gas plants.

And on top of this rapid reduction in power sector emissions; on top of massive renewables build and reducing electricity use per person, to stay below two degrees we’re going to need a huge new negative emissions industry. As well as reforestation and improving land uses, by 2040 Europe needs to have captured 340Mt of CO2 (i.e. slightly less than the UK’s total annual CO2 emissions) and then rapidly accelerate after that to make sure Europe is net negative shortly after 2050.

So to stop climate change in its tracks, in the next decade we need to not only shutter all of Europe’s coal, but make sure it’s replaced by clean power not gas.

The first industrial revolution took Europe at least 80 years; we’ve now got just 20 years to complete the revolution from coal & gas to clean power.